The Magazine

The Walking Cure

In the footsteps of Hermann Hesse.

May 19, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 34 • By JOHN STEINBREDER
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Montagnola, Switzerland
Friends of Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) called him “the endless walker,” and there were few things he liked doing as much. Italy was a favorite place for his camminatas, and Hesse made seven trips to that land as a young man, exploring treasures of the Renaissance in the museums of Florence and ambling through the hills and towns of Tuscany and Umbria. In 1911, Hesse embarked on a three-month journey to India (where his mother and father had worked as missionaries), Ceylon, Indonesia, and Malaysia. This kindled a spiritual curiosity in Eastern religion that later influenced Hesse’s work as well as his constant quest for enlightenment. 

Hermann Hesse (1960)

Hermann Hesse (1960)

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Then there were the treks he took in and around Montagnola, the scenic Swiss village above Lake Lugano that became his adopted home at the end of World War I—and where he lived until his death. In fact, Montagnola is where Hesse most frequently and happily strolled, up and down narrow lanes canopied by cypresses and sycamores, through forests and past vineyards, often in sight of the southernmost peaks of the Alps and the distant lake shore over which they loomed. 

Wearing a straw hat and carrying his easel and paints, as well as a folding stool, he stopped at different spots along these walks so he could record what he was seeing and, in his words, “preserve with watercolors something of the abundant magic.” It was another part of his existence—one outside of his writing—and it was a place where Hesse could balance the intellectual life of his deskwork with life outdoors. He often wrote about the synthesis of those two worlds, most powerfully in The Glass Bead Game (1943). And Montagnola was where he so diligently tried to find—and forge—that balance.

It was the knowledge of Hesse’s saunters through the Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton at the very bottom of Switzerland, that prompted me to go there for a walk of my own. That, and the fact that I had lived for a spell two villages away from the Casa Camuzzi, where Hesse first resided in Montagnola—and where he wrote Siddhartha (1922), Narcissus and Goldmund (1930), and The Glass Bead Game, among other works. It was an easy trip, and an enlightening one too, as it gave me a sense of what moved and motivated the man as I traced his steps, occasionally sitting on benches from which he would have taken in panoramas of lakes improbably lined with palm trees and backed by snow-covered crags, sipping caffé correttos beneath the pergola on the terrace of his favorite grotto as songbirds warbled, and savoring the sweet scents of lavender and magnolia that wafted through his air years ago—and now mine.

In 1919, Hesse, already a celebrated author, moved to Montagnola. He was a broken man, 42 years old, looking to leave the harsher, more buttoned-down north of Switzerland after suffering a nervous breakdown for a place in the softer, gentler south, where he could heal and rejuvenate. He knew the Ticino from his earlier travels to Italy and liked its quiet quaintness as well as its natural beauty. Shortly after he arrived, he rented a four-room apartment in Montagnola, in the Casa Camuzzi, on what was called the Collina d’Oro, or the Golden Hill. 

When it came time for my walk, I started where Hesse himself would have started. Casa Camuzzi, built in the style of a Russian country house in 1853, is a stone abode with cast-iron railings and wood shutters painted robin’s-egg blue. The front entrance is on a narrow, cobblestoned street, and there is a terraced garden in back that overlooks San Salvatore, the wedge-like mountain seemingly rising right out of Lake Lugano, and the cerulean waters beyond. It’s Sunday morning, and church bells are pealing gently as I admire the stately façade of the building, which is today a private residence and not open to the public. But I am able to go into the Torre Camuzzi next door, which boasts a medieval tower and now houses the Hermann Hesse Museum. 

There are copies of the author’s books and his old typewriter, as well as photographs. Several of his watercolors hang on the walls; they are a reminder of the liberating diversion he found in painting after his breakdown. Intricately woven carpets hang from the walls of the main room, and pieces of his wardrobe, including dhotis that speak to the Eastern influences in his life, are displayed behind glass. There are letters, too, and Hesse is said to have answered every missive ever sent to him, whether from well-known friends like Konrad Adenauer and Sigmund Freud or middle-school students who liked his work. And lots were sent, with Hesse writing an estimated 35,000 responses over the years. In fact, the volume of mail became so great that the post office in Montagnola had to acquire a pushcart in order to transport all of his correspondence.

My camminata continues down Via Ra Curta and a narrow leafy lane lined with oleander shrubs with pink and white flowers and rose bushes in full bloom. Soon I come upon the village of Certenago, with tidy stone houses on whose walls frescoes dating back hundreds of years have been painted. Most of the homes have flower boxes bursting with red and pink geraniums and small balconies with cast-iron railings. 

Then I arrive at the Chiesa Sant’Abbondio, a modest stone church dating to the 11th century and perched on a small promontory at the end of a drive lined with cypress trees, each perfectly cylindrical and rising roughly 20 feet high. Terraces of merlot grape vines grow in the fields to my left, and halfway down that road, I begin to hear the congregation sing a solemn hymn. I listen to the voices as I walk along a series of stone shrines arranged around the churchyard, each with a weathered fresco depicting one of the Stations of the Cross.

Hesse is buried in the cemetery across the road, with his third wife, the art historian Ninon Dolbin. Theirs is a simple grave site, with rose bushes, juniper, and holly growing around the stones on which their names are engraved, just like so many other markers here bearing the appellations of local families who have lived and died in this area and whose names are still on the windows and awnings of nearby osterias and grocery stores. It makes me think of how much Hesse wanted to be a part of Montagnola—and to be much more than a zucchino, which is what the Ticinese called people who came “from the other side of the Alps.” In time, the villagers made Hesse an “honorary citizen” of Montagnola. But that honor did not come until July 1962, a little more than a month before Hesse died and some 43 years after he had moved here.

After contemplating the headstones in the cemetery, I follow the path into the Canvetto Forest, along the side of a ridge facing northeast, so well shaded by the late morning sun that it feels 10 degrees cooler, and so quiet that I can hear acorns drop to the ground—and squirrels scurrying across the leafy forest floor to grab them. Then I come upon the Grotto Cavicc, where Hesse often stopped for sustenance. I decide to do the same, ordering an espresso and a shot of local grappa, a bracing combination that elevates the spirit as well as the heart rate.

The next stop is known simply as the “Glade,” and it is a place where Hesse used to sit with his paints, “trying to catch and put on paper a small corner of the wood.” I settle onto a bench here, for a brief rest, and then begin a steep climb up the narrow Vicolo di Liguna to the charming Hotel Bella Vista, and then back to the last stop on the walking tour, the Casa Rossa, into which Hesse moved in 1931. His friend and patron from Zurich, Hans Bodmer, had bought this land for Hesse and initiated the construction of a Ticinese-style house, with stone walls, large, shuttered windows, and a red-tiled roof. 

At this point in his life, Hermann Hesse immersed himself in gardening—growing vegetables and flowers, and nurturing merlot grapes in a small vineyard. He often said that his time here helped his writing, and he later averred that the complex content of The Glass Bead Game was conceived at Casa Rossa. That book was Hesse’s last novel, but it was by no means the last of him as a writer, and he continued to produce short stories, essays, and poems from Casa Rossa, as he also answered the daily letters. It seems a good place to have ended a great writing life. 

John Steinbreder is a senior correspondent for Global Golf Post and a visiting professor at Franklin College, Switzerland.  

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